Political philosopher Hannah Arendt was one of the most brilliant and expansive thinkers of the 20th century, and she weighed in on the American educational debate in her Between Past and Future. Randall Curren's collection Philosophy of Education: An Anthology contains selections from that work.
Arendt advances a powerful argument against the ideology of progressive education, the results of which she calls "ruinous." However, she neglects to judge the reforms ushered in by the rise of progressive education against the practices they replaced, many of which were harsh, authoritarian, and uncaring as well as characterized by an emphasis on facts without context, an uncritical continuation of antiquated practices, etc.
Arendt's arguments run as follows:
-The American obsession with the new has led to an obsession with education, which in turn has led to the enshrinement of "pedagogy" or "education" as a subject unique unto itself, and to a conception of teaching as not necessarily connected with any particular subject matter.
-America's educational crisis is "especially acute" because of its zest for equality and the erasure of difference; in the context of education, this takes the form of reducing the teacher's authority (to erase the student/teacher difference) and doing less to cultivate gifted students.
-There are three core, mistaken assumptions at the heart of progressive education:
1. "There exist a child's world and a society formed among children that are autonomous and must insofar as possible be left to them to govern. Adults are only there to help with this government. ...(The adult) can only tell (the child) to do what he likes and then prevent the worst from happening." The result of this is a cutting-off of the child from the world of adults; children are liberated from the authoritative adult and "handed over to the tyranny of their own group," and the child's reaction "tends to be either conformism or juvenile delinquency."
2. As noted above, "pedagogy has developed into a science of teaching in general in such a way as to be wholly emancipated from the actual material to be taught." This has resulted "in a most serious neglect of the training of teachers in their own subjects...." Expert-teachers can derive their authority from their expertise in a subject; teachers without subject-matter expertise must be authoritarian, that is, their authority has nothing to point to besides the fact that it exists (i.e., "might makes right").
3. "You can know and understand only what you have done yourself," and so in education doing is substituted for learning. One result of this is the rise of vocational instruction, which reflects schools' inability to "make the children acquire the normal prerequisites of a standard curriculum." A related, equally mistaken idea is that the difference between play and work should be rejected, and that preference should be given to play rather than work. "This procedure consciously attempts to keep the older child as far as possible at the infant level. The very thing that should prepare the child for the world of adults, the gradually acquired habit of work and of not-playing, is done away with in favor of the autonomy of the world of childhood."
-Together, these ideas constitute an abdication of the responsibility of adults for the "continuance of the world." "The world, too, needs protection to keep it from being overrun and destroyed by the onslaught of the new that bursts upon it with each new generation. ...In education this responsibility for the world takes the form of authority. ...The teacher's qualification consists in knowing the world and being able to instruct others about it, but his authority rests on his assumption of responsibility for that world. Vis-a-vis the child it is as though he were a representative of all adult inhabitants, pointing out the details and saying to the child: This is our world."